The question is, of course, a very lop-sided one. A Christian should be focusing on obedience, and not how much he might get wrong and still have the love of God. But there is something within my nature, and perhaps yours also, that asks the hard questions, and we do wonder about our crazy lives and mistakes that adorn the pathway of our life all too frequently. We are not in the position of God, whom you may remember, told us that he did not commit himself to men, because he saw what was within man, and needs not that any should testify of them. In other words, God alone sees to the heart, and knows the very intent that goes on there. So it seems to me to be an endless question open to much speculation and possible conditions, one that I could not answer at all in my lifetime, much less expect to answer in this short piece.
But suppose I turn the question around a little bit. What is the essential component of a Christian? That question becomes much easier to answer, but needs to have a warning attached to it. I have written a book called Beyond Philosophy, talking about the initial basic steps that lead toward a more complete discipleship, but what I am going to be writing about here is what it takes to be a Christian. If I define that in its barest terms, then all else could be subtracted and we could still imagine the person to be a Christian. In the final analysis, our definitions will have no merit, but all is dependent on the one who judges hearts.
I think of this question rather often, or at least the implications of this question because I spend a lot of time listening to Christian music. I do not follow the lives of artists very much, but I do find it sometimes hard not to follow a particular artist when that artist becomes involved in scandalous headline behavior. At that point, I probably stop and think and wonder, as many probably do, about whether that particular person is a Christian or not.
Actually I have chosen musical artists rather deliberately for two reasons. First, I do not wish to talk about any certain person particularly, because this is something that we all believe is only finally answerable in the judgment of God. Second, I think that the musical artist genre is large enough so that most of us can easily think of one example where we might wonder about the person’s Christianity. Sitting down now and thinking about it, I can recall at least three or four musical artists who were supposed to be Christian, but whose publicized actions brought their Christianity into question. It is my tendency at first to sharply condemn those who are acting so bizarrely, until the Lord has me ponder my own mistakes. And then, somehow my perspective seems to change.
I think that pretty well explains the dichotomy—on the one hand we as sinners profoundly hope for grace, but on the other hand we have high expectations for ourselves (along with convenient memory), and perhaps unconsciously, even higher expectations for others. It is terribly easy for me to notice the wood chip in someone else’s eye, and ignore the plank in my own. How is it that we see the wrongs so easily in others, and ignore or forget it in our own lives?
The essential component of a Christian is just as it was with Jesus in the beginning of the church age. By faith we are saved, by faith we are kept, and by faith one day we will be redeemed. There is no other foundation other than through the one who proclaimed to be the Way. It is no good asking the question that I started with, for if the foundation is laid properly with faith, the rest cannot matter. Of course we cannot see the foundation that is laid between a man and his God, and it thus remains a question altogether in the mind of God.
The gospel insists that we can know Christians by their fruits, and that remains the best measure for outsiders to see evidence of a changed heart, but still only God knows. In the times of Roman persecution, Christians berated one another for not staying true to the faith, and recanting. While it is true that many martyrs did find the strength to be faithful to the end, it is also true that many did not. They recanted their faith, and some of them were released. What was the church to do with such?
It actually produced ambiguity within the church; some thought that they should be received back, others thought that they should have to earn their way back, and still others felt that such people should be shunned. Yet, if but for a moment they had reflected about Peter, surely they would have known that grace is abundant even when we are not faithful. Peter is thought by some to actually have denied our Lord not three times but six times (see The Life of Christ in Stereo). Careful reading of the gospels reveals that there were two different statements made by Christ. Once Jesus tells Peter that before the cock crows, you will deny me three times, and in the other, Jesus tells Peter that before the cock crows twice you will deny my three times. The author, Cheney, maintains that by putting the gospels together it becomes evident that Peter actually denied the Lord six times.
Perhaps a moot point? In any case, Peter was absolutely devastated by his denials (whether they be three or six I do not know), and Jesus took a lot of extra time with Peter, recorded in John, to make sure that Peter understood his forgiveness and the wonderful grace of our Lord. But now let us go back to those Christian music artists that I have such a difficult time with their (sometimes very) inconsistent testimony. Could they not be like Peter in living their lives?
It is a difficult question to answer, but the possibility that they could be like Peter certainly is an existent possibility. I think that I still have some trouble (maybe you do also?) when I consider how the Bible insists that we are to spur one another on to good deeds, that we are to forsake the deeds of darkness and to seek the fruit of the Spirit which is love, joy, and peace. But then, upon reflection, I am driven to my knees once more, aware that my own darkness is not completely forsaken—indeed, sometimes I have turned my back on what I knew I should be doing, and in that moment I realize afresh that without the complete and full grace of God, I do not even have a prayer of getting into heaven.
The doctrine of the perseverance of saints I find obscure in that regard. I have no difficulty believing in the complete grace of God overcoming sin—otherwise, as I said, I surely will not stand on that day, but I do have trouble seeing hearts, and therefore I have realized I cannot see perseverance of the saints working out. The dilemma is quite simple. People stray. Some come back. Others do not. John tells us that they went out from us because they were really not of us. So we might simply assume that those who do not come back were in reality not Christian to begin with.
But any reflection (and James who tells us that there is a sin that ends in death) about myself makes me realize that I could quite easily have died while I was straying. Would I then be lost? Surely not! God is faithful—it is me who has the problem of faithfulness. So you see, while I perfectly believe in the perseverance of the saints—knowing fully well that God is keeping me, I can never say that about other people. I do not know their heart. As for the persevering part? I believe God fully keeps his part, and thus I believe the Bible that tells us he is faithful even when we are not. In the end, I have no doubt that we will find God completely persevering in his faithfulness with every single soul.
I do believe there are sins that end in death. Some of our musical folk have ended their lives tragically this way. Is God faithful? Every time! And maybe our speculation about whether someone else is Christian is just that—speculation. And perhaps it needs to be left at that. It is reasonable for us to expect fruit from others, but it is just as reasonable for us to expect fruit from ourselves, and sometimes we are just not what we ought to be. Maybe they are not what they ought to be either. Instead, can we focus on the Lord, who has loved us and freely given himself for us, while we were yet sinners?
If the gospel comes to us any other way, then my salvation and yours must forever be imperiled. If it does in the end really reduce to Christ Plus, how are we ever to know if the Plus is enough? In the morning sermon, our Pastor covered the text in which Paul says to “Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). Was Paul willing to give Mark a second chance? Does God give second chances? Mark failed in his first missionary endeavor, but his faithful cousin, Barnabus, was able to love him in spite of that failure. In time, the patience and love that Barnabus showed Mark even won Paul over, that he might desire the help of Mark, who proved himself over and over useful in the ministry, eventually giving us the gospel of Mark itself.
Paul tells us that “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19) He would remind us that we do not belong to ourselves anymore; we have been purchased of God and for his purposes. It is altogether good that we flee worldly things which we were formerly involved in, and it is also altogether good that we have problems when we see brothers and sisters struggling against sin, and losing those struggles. We are told to pray for such, and to restore them gently, lest we ourselves be found in the same position.
The gospel is not needed for the righteous. Indeed, Christ proclaims that he is not come to save the righteous. As long as we pretend that we are righteous we shall find no need of a Savior, but in seeing our selves as God sees us, then and only then do we become able to be saved. We see our need. The next verse tells us what we are called to: “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.” Some of us, in the power of the Spirit, will succeed wonderfully in finding and living that kind of life. Others will manifest deep problems in their walk with God, and may never get past that struggle.
Let me close with an illustration about Marty. I worked in a rescue mission in the early eighties in downtown Los Angeles. Homelessness had come to the national consciousness, and was in the headlines much in those days, and the men on Skid Row were particularly to be pitied. Many in those days were alcoholics, slaves to their next drink. During my years there, I found alcoholism across all stratas of society, rich and poor, professional and simple. Marty was the alcoholic of the alcoholics, but he did not like it and he knew it was wrong. Soiled and dirty beyond description, Marty came to every service. There were many churches coming to give services in those days, and invitations to receive Christ were given at all of them. Sobbing and crying (and often drunk), he would respond to the invitations again and again. He professed faith in Christ, but was never able to dry out for any length of time. Was he saved? As his chaplain, I had no way of knowing. It is utterly beyond me to know the hearts of others and their relationships with God, except by the evidence of their fruits. Marty could have been saved. He also could have just been one of many who struggled with self-reformation, and found himself too weak. In such a case he would be one who went out from us, because he was not really of us. Or, and I would not be too surprised, one day in heaven I might meet Marty, who could not win his earthly battles, but who is made righteous nonetheless by his faith, and is clothed in a white robe, made righteous by his Lord. Mercy and love, without giving up our desire to be found working for the Lord, ought to be hallmarks of our struggle in this world.
I know not the condition of poor Marty’s soul, but this at least I do know. Not one of us will get into heaven on the basis of what we have done. We will only make it on the basis of what he has done. And that ought to be enough to remind us to be merciful to others, snatching them from the fires themselves, hating the sins that have captivated them (Jude 23).